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Whither the Withering Theater Audience?
17 May 2010

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Over the weekend, I went to a play called "Benghal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" -- which, clunky title notwithstanding, is a Pulitzer-nominated play by the same playwright who did The Laramie Project. It's an astonishing good play, which has been getting rave reviews from every critic in the country (the New York Times called it "boldly imagined, harrowing and surprisingly funny"). This production was playing at the Mark Taper in Performing Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles, which is perhaps the most prominent theater in the city. I went on a Friday night - prime theater going time. 

And yet the theater was maybe two-thirds full.

You would think that the fact that I live in a city where you can't spit without hitting an actor would mean that I live in a fantastic city for theater. And yet when I tell people that I go to the theater (Benghal Tiger was the third I've seen this year) people give me a perplexed look, as if I just told them I went buffalo hunting or dabbled in pogo jumping. I recently did a quick survey of my friends -- all highly literate types, most of whom are in some way involved in creative industries, the kind of people that should be going to plays -- and none of them had seen a play recently.

It's not that Los Angeles doesn't have some good theater -- there are some great productions that come here, with high-wattage actors (I recently saw Martin Sheen in "The Subject Was Roses" and Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles in "Oleanna"). Sure, I've gone to my fair share of bad plays over the years -- generally, the LA equivalent of off-off-off Broadway productions at tiny theaters -- but more often than not the plays that I've seen have been cast with incredibly good actors and are at least interesting. We have the Pantages theater, which gets all the big musicals, and a fair number of top-quality theater troupes. But there's not a lot of high-profile productions going on at any time -- it's not like New York, where on any given night you can choose between a fistful of Tony-winning plays and productions starring Cate Blanchett and free Shakespeare in the Park and massive musical extravaganzas that have been running for three decades.

Since the problem is not a lack of talent -- LA, obviously, is crawling with underemployed actors and directors and playwrights -- I'm guessing the problem is the lack of demand. If even a Pulitzer nominated play can't fill a theater, who can? Is the audience just aging out of existence? On Friday night, the audience was dominated by the expected NPR-tote-bag-carrying-gray-hairs, although there were also a decent number of people under 40. But considering how young and hip and funny this play was - there was vulgarity and masturbation jokes and a gold-plated toilet seat and a tiger debating God's existence - I was pretty surprised that there wasn't a more contemporary crowd. In New York, the theater would have been packed to the gills with tastemakers.

I wonder whether the barrier to entry for the younger demographic is the cost (our tickets were $45), or the convenience (a lot of the theaters are in out-of-the-way areas, like downtown), or the lack of good promotion (the main way to find out about local theater is to read the LA Times, which, sadly, no one really does).  But I also suspect there's a lot of inertia involved: In a city so dominated by movies, everyone hits the cinema on Friday night instead. It's easy, comparatively cheap, and you can dish about ScarJo's catsuits in "Iron Man 2" with all your friends who saw it too. Whereas if you tell people you went to see a play and you'll bring the dinner conversation to a grinding halt. 

Maybe there's a thriving theater scene here that I don't know about, where plays sell out instantly and audiences are packed every night of the week. I hope there is, because otherwise the theater scene in Los Angeles is on shaky ground as the audiences ages right out of their seats and into the senior citizen homes.

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